They come not as single spies, but in battalions
History will record that the most baleful legacy of New Labour is not its alarming incompetence or its mendacity in the conduct of public affairs – shameful though they are – but the way in which it has destroyed our privacy. We are the most spied-upon society in Europe, with more CCTV cameras than the rest of the EU combined. In the international rankings calculated by the human rights organisation Privacy International we are near the bottom of the table, marginally above Russia and China but below the Philippines and Thailand.
How did this country, for centuries a bastion of freedom, slither into this morass? Some answers are found in yesterday's chilling analysis of the "Surveillance Society" published by Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner. Mr Thomas is to be commended for ringing the alarm bells. While conceding that much official snooping is well-intentioned and can bring benefits, he warns that "unseen, uncontrolled or excessive surveillance can foster a climate of suspicion and undermine trust".
We have already passed that stage. New Labour has used the shock of the 9/11 attacks to launch the most sustained assault on personal freedom ever seen in this country outside wartime. It is not just the ubiquity of CCTV cameras or speed cameras – they are simply the visible manifestation of Tony Blair's obsession with control. It is the plans for ID cards and biometric recognition, the national DNA database (which even its own inventor believes is out of control), the computerisation of medical records, the national children's database, ever more intrusive questions proposed for the next Census. Taken together they are stripping us bare of any real sense of privacy.
advertisementMinisters glibly argue that they are doing only what the private sector does.
However, we have a choice whether we want to use a mobile telephone, a loyalty card or a credit card (all of which can be used to "profile" us). We have no say in what this Government chooses to inflict upon us as it pursues its manipulative obsessions.
There are profound philosophical questions about the relationship of the state to the individual at stake here – and it is ripe territory for the Conservatives. They are right to say they will not proceed with ID cards: but that is just scratching the surface.
David Cameron is a liberal Conservative who professes a belief in small government. Who better to lead a full-throated and sustained attack on New Labour's surveillance society, which is fast threatening to turn us into a nation of ciphers, and a people without a basic right of privacy.
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